Standing with Israel by standing IN Israel

A few short weeks ago, I predicted that the headline of this article would read quite differently. Give me 15 seconds to explain.

I thought that at the sound of the first rocket explosion in Tel Aviv, recent immigrants to Israel would be running for the hills, and by that I mean back to the countries that they had left behind.

I’d heard all kinds of stories – olim were sleeping with their shoes on, cutting class, running out to pick up their government-issued gasmasks, staying off public transportation, and devising clever escape routes to the north.

In short: I expected the violence surrounding Operation Pillar of Defense to scare off a significant number of new and potential immigrants.

The data, it turns out, disagreed with my theory.

Olim arrive in Israel. Photo courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh

In 2002, foreign Jews who made aliya to Israel were at a relative and historic low. But the change in 2002 was not necessarily due to the spate of high-profile suicide bombings that occurred in that year; the critical factor was more likely the weak economy of the time.

Neil Gillman of the Jewish Agency for Israel put it this way:

It’s true that the number of people making aliya were at historic lows in 2002. But at the time we were also experiencing an economic slump, and it’s difficult to say which factor figured more into people’s line of thinking. Since we’ve seen growth in the number of olim through other violent times, it’s safe to say that an economic slump, coupled with increased violence, is when we can expect to see a negative impact.

Gillman says that by 2003, the Agency was handing out instructions to new olim that included a section on where to get a gas mask upon arrival to Israel. “But the crazy thing was, we were giving those instructions,” he said, “and people – knowing that Saddam Hussein wanted to unload chemical weapons onto Israel – continued to get off the plane and make aliya. The numbers increased in 2003.”

The numbers have continued to increase since then, despite the Second Lebanon war in 2006 and violence surrounding Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009, when one would expect to see a significant dent in the rate of people coming here.

Then potential and new olim, those who have been citizens for less than a year, proved my theory wrong.

“Everything that’s happened in the last few weeks has only made me want to be in Israel more,” says 22-year-old Lee Douber, who plans to move to Israel from New Jersey in January.

Not many people here who aren’t making aliya can understand that mentality, but the violence made my need for the connection stronger.

For 25-year-old Emily Rubenstein, who made aliya in June from New York, the recent events served as her first taste of violence in Israel:

When the rockets were flying over Tel Aviv and the bomb exploded on the bus, I was thinking: there are bombs going off, and yet I still want to live here. If I hadn’t been in Israel when the violence began, I would be desperately trying to come here. One of my friends had a Facebook status that summed up the attitude of the people I know nicely, ‘The only way to stand with Israel is to stand in Israel.’

In fact, according to Yael Katsman of Nefesh B’Nefesh, if olim were running at all, often it was to volunteer for the military. “We had a group of citizens from outside the country come to our offices who needed our help overcoming a bureaucratic issue. They were trying to get to volunteer in their former army units.” Nefesh B’Nefesh had clients fly into Israel everyday of the operation and has yet to receive a cancelation because of the recent conflict.

That’s not to say I didn’t speak to olim who had concerns about recent events.

Genna Brand, a 24-year-old from Virginia Beach and soccer player for ASA Tel Aviv, made aliya this time last year.

When I heard the siren for the first time on Thursday night, I totally froze. For that minute and a half until the next morning my stomach was in knots and anxiety ran through me. Later, one of my roommates started in bed and timed herself to see how long it would take to wake everyone up and then run to the shelter.

Twenty-four-year-old Tel Aviv University student Danielle Moghadam moved to Israel with her husband Ramy two years ago and made aliya last month.

I didn’t go to class on one day because I was so nervous and overwhelmed by everything. The bus bombing in particular shook me up in a different way and put my nerves on a whole new level. I’m worried about taking public transportation now.

I for one, a gentile who moved here a few months ago for love of man rather than love of country, can more than relate. The first time I heard the wail of sirens in Tel Aviv, I had a near panic attack, was a hundred percent certain that a rocket was going to land directly on my head and ended the evening in tears.

Photo courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh

But I didn’t flee because of the recent violence, and neither did anyone else mentioned above. Genna says the violence opened her eyes to the reality here in a way that makes her appreciate Israel more. Danielle says the very act of making aliya made her more “Israeli” and better equipped to handle life here, while her husband has no concerns about living in Israel moving forward.

And though I was hell-bent on it, I couldn’t find one recent oleh who really reconsidered his or her decision to move here (although examples of non-citizen students and tourists who left because of the violence were plentiful).

What sets these new immigrants to Israel apart from immigrants to other Western nations is not necessarily that they’ve mastered the laugh-in-the-face-of-danger attitude Israelis are known for; it’s that they each have reasons to live here and have weighed those reasons against everything they know about the country – an obvious fact that I had grossly underestimated.

Whether for ideology or love or career or whatever else, immigrants, by definition, have chosen to live here despite the danger. It’s no wonder we are hesitant to leave.

About the Author
Tiffanie Wen is a freelance writer currently based in Tel Aviv.